In August of 1996 a group of friends invited me to attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I’d heard them talk about it the year before and it sounded fabulous. The idea of taking a 4 day break from the patriarchy was very appealing. However, my husband, feeling a little insecure about me trapsing into the woods of Michigan with lesbian friends, asked for three promises—no nudity, no tattoos, and no sex with women. “Why go?” I joked.
It took me all but 30 minutes after setting up camp to relax into it. It didn’t even seem weird to see a woman wearing a fancy garter belt contraption and stiletto heels high stepping through the woods. Or to see a parade of semi clad red heads. Or to see bare chested women with scars from mastectomies. Everything was okay. It was like girl scout camp only way better.
The music was awesome. I was introduced to bands like Dar Williams whose “When I Was a Boy” song bought me to tears; Tribe 8 who pretended to separate men from their penises with a chain saw; and 7 Year Bitch introduced me to the Riot Grrrl scene. But my absolute favorite was the Murmurs, the lead singer tearing up as she sang about domestic violence in “Children of the Garden.” It was all so wild and yet gentle. I saw a 70 year old woman float like an angel above the hands of the crowd in the mosh pit. Her long gray hair draping down as she held her cane on her chest.
And OMG the percussionist Ubaka Hill! It felt like her drumming had summoned these tribes of women from around the world. I danced with the masses like a cave woman wearing nothing but my blue skirt and body paint.
There was respect for the land. No beer cans and cigarette butts littering the woods. There was cooperation. Every attendee had to work at least three shifts. You could be part of a stage crew, you could chop and stack fire wood, or work in the kitchen tent. I chopped 250 pounds of cabbage and shucked corn into a kiddy pool with five women from around the world,.
Everyone was cared for. There was ASL at every stage. There were quiet zones and rowdy zones. There were AA groups and NA groups. For the first time in my life, I was in the minority as a heterosexual. And there was a support group for that.
For me, the festival was hyper stimulation paired with profound relaxation and spirituality. But the overwhelming feeling was one of incredible safety. It felt like a long luxurious exhale.
I kept two of my promises to my husband. I didn’t get a tattoo or have sex. I attended the event for two more years.
Wikipedia says that “Michfest” or some version of it spanned from 1976 to 2015—almost 40 years. There were more than 5,000 women there each of the three years I attended on “the land” in Oceana County. There were years when 10,000 women attended. There’s a lot of speculation about why it ended. It might have had to do with the controversy of including trans women. So even this utopia was flawed. But maybe we can never achieve Utopia if we exclude anyone. Even people with penises. Except people who are assholes. Maybe exclude them.
(I recently told this story at an Ex Fabula story slam. The theme was Utopia. I didn’t think I had a story and then I remembered my precious days at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Ex Fabula is Milwaukee’s local story telling group.)